Studying Abroad: Expectations vs. Reality?

by Arielle Demchuk

Choosing to study abroad is one of the most important and bravest decisions students can make during their college career and also in their lives. The experience is surrounded by all kinds of assumptions, many are correct, but others couldn’t be further from the truth. Don’t be a victim to the “expectations vs. realities” syndrome that can dampen your time studying abroad. It’s one of the few experiences in life that can really live up to its hype as long as you keep the following in mind and don’t expect everyday to feel like the final scene in a movie (although some will)!

Studying abroad means seeing amazing sights, meeting great people from around the world, and eating fantastic food.
Studying abroad means seeing amazing sights, meeting great people from around the world, and eating fantastic food. Photo by Arielle Demchuk

Expectation #1: I’m going to make a ton of international friends immediately.

Reality Check: The first friendships you make are generally those that have common geographical ground with you.

You are going to experience some culture shock in the beginning of your study abroad trip, especially if it’s your first experience with extended travel, or your first trip without your family. Basic survival tactics will have you seeking comfort, not further differences or situations. You will likely find yourself seeking out a fellow international student from Canada or the United States, perhaps from your home city, but nevertheless, sharing a common ground.  

International students are often put together in an international dorm, so you will be surrounded by fellow Americans also studying abroad in addition to international students from all over. The lowest common denominator of being from the same country, and of speaking the same language, creates an immensely strong bond when faced with completely foreign surroundings, even if the only other thing you have in common is an interest in travel.

Bottom Line: It’s important to step out of your comfort zone and interact with people from different parts of the world while you are studying abroad, but don’t expect to have instant connections with someone from every country. It's also important to recognize that, after your study abroad time ends, it will be easy to fall out of contact with your Hungarian dorm room buddy and less so with your friend that's a three hour drive away. It will take some extra effort to foster and maintain these relationships with people from varying backgrounds. They take more work, but will help broaden your perspective and improve your cross cultural communication skills for years to come. 

Expectation #2: I won’t gain any weight like most people do.  

Reality: Don't kid yourself.

Studying abroad exposes you to a wide variety of new and amazing foods you may never have had the luxury of experiencing back home, and even if you have, there is nothing quite like the real thing. Crèpes and baguettes in France, waffles and chocolate in Belgium, schnitzel in Germany, paella in Spain, pizza and pasta in Italy, fresh sushi in Japan … Each country has a variety of gastronomical specialties and you’d be a fool to miss out on them because you’re watching your figure. Experiencing a new culture's food and beverage specialties is one of the most dynamic aspects of travel.

Bottom Line: If it's in line with your budget, don't hold back on trying the foods of a particular region, no matter how loaded with carbohydrates, fat, and sugar they may be. Of course moderation is key, but why hold back on that one last liège waffle when you know you'll never find anything quite as good back home?

An international volunteer posing with a local

Expectation #3: I will master the language of the country.

Reality: You're going to be speaking a lot of English, and gaining true fluency in a second language takes years. 

Refer to Expectation #1. If you don't hang out with locals, you're going to automatically divert to English, which is within your comfort zone and which will often be the common language within a dorm of international students. After full classes spent learning the local language, days spent amongst locals, and people of different customs and mannerisms, and potentially feeling completely lost by all the new stimuli, it's a great comfort to return to your dorm and speak some English. However, completely immersing yourself in a language during your study abroad program is the most effective method of learning a new language, and consistently reverting back to English at any opportunity is not going to help force your brain to really develop skills in a second language.

Bottom Line: If you're okay with not completely immersing yourself in a second language, then it's a good idea to stay in an international dorm, meet people around your age from all over the world, and build a support network of people going through the same cultural shock as you. If your main impetus for studying abroad is to master a second language, it's a good idea to look into residing in a homestay rather than a dorm. This way, you will be staying with locals who may or may not know English, and you will inevitably have to practice the language more so with them than you would in a dorm situation on a daily basis. Plus, it's not a bad idea to get exposed to some real local cooking rather than microwaving yourself a bag of rice in the dorm room kitchen every night while studying abroad!

Expectation #4: Everyday will include sightseeing, adventures, and exploring! Not a day will pass without an art gallery, museum, historical landmark, or natural sight!

Reality: You are in school, and some days, just like back home, you will just want to come back to your dorm, microwave some popcorn, do your homework, and go to bed.

Study abroad programs can vary in intensity, but for the most part, you are essentially transplanting your current university program into a different country. Even though your classroom has a view of Tuscan vineyards, it doesn't mean your study abroad coursework won’t demand a lot of you, or that you will receive any less homework. Days will still include classes, meals, cleaning your room, shopping for groceries, folding laundry, etc. You will be tired or have to prioritize responsibilities even in a new country, your rewards are just better!

Bottom Line: Don't be frustrated by what may seem like a restriction of time to do the fun things you came to the country to do. Your classes should actually be part of the fun. Plus, everywhere in the world seems to have more long weekends than the United States, and, just like if you budget your time accordingly back home, you can use your free time to do just about whatever you want, and go wherever you want.  

Especially in Europe, due to the train and cheap flight system, it's very easy to spend a weekend in an entirely different country and still come back in time for school on Monday. It's good to keep in mind that you are also in this place longer than the average traveler, so it's not necessary to get all of the must-see items done in one go–you have the luxury of spacing your sightseeing out while still having some guilt-free rest in between.

A woman in the city of Prague

Expectation #5 I’m going to meet amazing people, see spectacular new sights, and generally have the best time of my life.

Reality: OK, this one is completely true. You ARE going to meet amazing people, see spectacular new sights, and most DEFINITELY be exposed to a wide variety of new things!

Bottom Line: If you have the option of doing an international exchange during the course of your studies definitely take advantage of that opportunity. Not only will you get to cross some must-see travel items off of your bucket list, but prospective employers like hiring candidates with international experience. You’ll have stories (good and bad) to tell for the rest of your life.